. . . almost all of the commuters I interviewed said that even a brief nod constituted a fairly drastic escalation of intimacy. . . . ‘Once you start greeting people like that – nodding, I mean – unless you’re very careful, you might end up starting to say “good morning” or something, and then you could end up actually having to talk to them.’
(Watching the English by Kate Fox: pages 139-40)
The next few days will see a couple of posts on train conversations. I felt that republishing this post from two years back might help set the scene.
Some of my recent posts have been rather heavy going. I thought I’d lighten it up a bit for a change.
When I go by train to London for meetings, which is usually about once a month, I tend to travel in the quiet carriage. This is not just because I am a bit introverted after the fashion described by Susan Cain in her excellent book, Quiet (see her talk below), but also because I usually have a load of reading to do in preparation for the meeting.
When I get on the train in Hereford, the carriage is usually fairly empty and I have a table to myself, as in the picture at the head of this post. By Worcester or soon after I usually have company.
So, introvert or not, for some reason I sometimes I can’t help breaking into conversation with someone at the same table, perhaps because people like me tend to choose a quiet carriage only to discover we’ve lots in common with the person behind the book across the table. And we’re obviously not as inhibited as commuters seem to be.
Talking in this way may seem to some of you an anti-social habit. It’s a quiet carriage after all. True, and I know I shouldn’t play music out loud, or have long conversations on my mobile, which I usually remember to switch to silent. However, I have never seen the quiet carriage as a kind of mobile Trappist capsule, where all talk is banned.
None the less, I have fallen foul of the quiet carriage chat police on several occasions. Once a red-faced man stood up at the far end of the carriage and hollered at the two of us who were deep in conversation: ‘This is a quiet carriage. Go and have your meeting somewhere else!’
I think he called it a ‘meeting’ because we weren’t talking about shopping or football, but about the impact of supermarkets on local trade, obviously not something he recognised as a topic suitable for conversation between acquaintances on a train.
But it is exactly this kind of deeper conversation that I really enjoy and am on the watch for more or less all the time. My encounters with the chat police have rather inhibited me now from starting up such conversations on the train.
Take my most recent attempt for example.
On my way to London I started a conversation in a quiet carriage, even at the risk of righteous anger from somewhere uncomfortably close. The only reason I started it was because my signal went on the mobile so I couldn’t tether the laptop any longer to keep on working.
‘I’ve got no signal,’ I said to the pale man diagonally opposite me across the table, who had boarded at Evesham. He smiled in sympathy.
‘I’ll have my coffee, I think.’ I got out my flask and my chocolate bar, and started munching and slurping.
‘Are you going to London?’ I asked. He looked up from his mobile phone, obviously with a different company.
‘Bit further than that,’ he replied. ‘France.’
‘Which part of France?’ I spluttered through my chocolate.
‘Skiing?’ I said pointing to his absence of the essential equipment, his only luggage being the grey rucksack on the seat next to him. He gave a slight smile in acknowledgement of the observation.
‘My friend is driving down there right now taking my kit.’
We slid into talking about Schumacher’s accident and he shared with me that his son had hit a hidden bump under the snow and been turned head over heels. He’d over-corrected with the result that he landed on his head at such an angle that he could have broken his neck. No harm done though as it turned out. Luckier than Schumacher.
I discovered, as he tapped it to demonstrate, that snow is often as hard as the table we were sitting at, it gets so compacted by the weight of the skiers sliding over it.
‘Just one of those things,’ he said of his son’s accident.
‘Not a reason for not skiing though,’ I responded.
The conversation then turned to how poorly we understand risk and I gave the illustration, from Gardner’s book on the subject, of the post-9/11 reaction in America where multitudes took to the roads in preference to the air and 1,595 extra people died as a result in road accidents. We were clearly on the edge of making the conversation really interesting.
He asked me to watch over his things as he went to the restaurant car for a coffee.
‘I’ve obviously triggered something,’ I joked pointing to my flask. He laughed.
I caught the withering glance of the woman opposite. ‘I forgot we were in a quiet carriage,’ I whispered.
We shut up after that. I didn’t have the nerve to re-start a conversation as I’d heard the shrill voice of a vigilante ticking off a family who had boarded at Oxford for making too much noise.
‘This is a quiet carriage,’ she squeaked. ‘If you want to talk go back down the train.’ At least I think she said ‘train.’
I was remembering the excited four-way conversation I’d had with the three young professionals when I was coming to a Chaplaincy meeting a few weeks earlier.
What triggered us into our deep exchange of ideas was that all bar one of us had a connection with St Thomas’s Hospital where I was heading for the meeting. Mine was obvious and fairly meaningless, the woman had been born there (how likely was that?) and one of the men had been trained there – still a pretty improbable connection and even more so when you put it with the others.
Not sure what Gardner would’ve made of all that but Kahneman would have had a field day quoting baseline probabilities. It was enough to get us going about the meaning of such things, anyway.
We were in full flow when we had been interrupted by someone behind my head shouting at us with a typical rebuke. We had continued in whispers because the conversation had simply been too interesting to stop – coincidence, synchronicity, NDEs, theodicy, evolution. No way we could shut up about that kind of thing.
Perhaps I have to accept that cafes are better places to hold this kind of exploration.
The week before last was a good example. I met up with two former colleagues in a local coffee shop. We covered a lot of ground – psychopaths, psychotherapy, NDEs (again!) and planned obsolescence to quote the ones I can remember.
The only downside was the over enthusiastic proprietor. We had admittedly placed rather a frugal order of two soups, two coffees and a fruit juice between the three of us to justify unlimited chatting time. But he was more than half empty and he was a bit trying. Just as one of us was launching into a fascinating point, up he would pop.
‘Are you sure you don’t want a piece of cake. We’ve a delicious selection,’ he’d offer brightly.
‘No thanks. We’re fine,’ we’d explain patiently. ‘Now as I was saying, according to one guy on this programme, society needs psychopaths . . . ‘
And again the bad penny.
‘More coffee anyone? Or cake now perhaps?’
Some people never give up.
From his point of view, of course, it was quite logical. Our unnoticed coffees had got colder as the conversation had warmed up, and our bowls of soup were empty. Why wouldn’t we want a top up? He was assuming we had gone there to eat after all, whereas really we were there, three introverts in their element, to talk about really serious things.
Eventually, it became obvious that our welcome was hugely overstretched. We headed for the exit. Even as we queued to pay, each of us separately, the conversation carried on apace.
‘How much? Can I pay by card? And there was this study done, this other programme said, that showed that 1% of people don’t mind killing because they are almost certainly psychopaths . . . £4.50 is it? OK . . . and the army definitely doesn’t want them in its ranks – too unpredictable . . . Yes, I’m putting my pin number in now . . . . there’s another 1% of completely ordinary people who don’t mind killing either. The army has a heck of a job to induce the other 98% to kill anybody. Thank you for a nice meal. Whoops, my card, nearly forgot.
So, in quiet carriages they don’t want you to talk because you disturb other people, and in cafes they don’t want you to talk too much because you can’t talk and eat at the same time.
I have a serious problem here and I’m working on it. Not everyone wants to sit at home and talk. No one wants to pay money just to sit at a table so they can talk. And going to a park in winter is not an option. I’ll let you know if I find the solution.